Recent revelations about Andrea Smith's claim to be Cherokee make this 2008 article I wrote about self representation seem more timely than ever. In it, I explore the cases of Ward Churchill and Resa Crane Bizzaro, whose claims to Cherokee identity may look similar to Andrea Smith's. I consider the differences between self identification (what Smith is doing) and self representation (what she's not doing very well). Self representation unites an identity claim with evidence, action with deed, in ways that matter most to the peoples we claim to identify with and by whom we are identified.
For many scholars of color and citizens of American Indian nations, race isn't separate or separable from knowledge making (i.e. research, teaching, and service). A group of indigenous women scholars responded to the Smith case with a "call first and foremost for accountability to the communities in which we claim membership...." In other words, academic honesty, professional integrity, and any identity claim always come back to questions central to accountability: what knowledge am I making, with whom, and for what purposes? Much of the evidence needed to support an identity claim comes from being and doing.
Steve Russell asks: "How can you be an Indian without knowing which of your relatives is Indian? How can you be an Indian with no ties to an Indian community? His first question is about being, the second about doing—both need to be answered by every scholar or professional claiming a Native identity. And these questions need to be answered with evidence deemed important by those with the rights, knowledge, and obligations to verify that evidence.
Being an American Indian scholar is about lineage and citizenship. In that 2008 article, I talk about "authenticity markers" and "identity fraud." By authenticity markers, I mean sources and instances of evidence used to establish an identity claim. I mean authenticity in the sense of validity, setting aside for the moment that validity itself has its own imperialist legacies. When these sources of evidence, or markers, are neither present nor presented, scholars leave themselves open to questions and disputes about their identity claims, and eventually, charges of identity fraud. Identity fraud happens when a scholar gains position, prestige, and resources by unjustifiably claiming an identity or being credited with particular accomplishments or qualities that have not been validated by those with the rights to validate these. American Indian nations have every right to ask people who claim to be affiliated with them about the nature of these affiliations and to seek evidence of lineage and citizenship. It's not only a question of academic honesty in Smith's case and professional honesty in Dolezal's. It's a question of the resources and position they seemed to have gained in whole or part by dint of their unsubstantiated claims. Their fraud rests in misrepresentations of themselves as belonging to a peoples when they have offered no evidence of being that identity.
Some have argued that Andrea is doing so much for indigenous people they claim to represent. Shouldn't that entitle her to a claim on Cherokee identity?' No. Her job as an academic as a public university requires professional accountability to the public. Doing a job well and with the peoples one is paid to serve doesn't entitle anyone to claim being Cherokee. Lineage and family show being. Being is about family, clan, and for many federally recognized tribes, citizenship. Doing however can happen even when a person cannot provide the evidence Nations seek in support of citizenship applications. Such is the case of Resa Crane Bizzaro, some would recognize her as the native woman she claims because of the hard work she puts in communities. In the article, I also describe her legitimate claims of lineage from families in the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Descendents have a place in conversations, workplaces and scholarly circles; their being and doing may well be recognized by the people whom they claim to represent. But their rights and obligations to their peoples are not the same, should not be mistaken as such, nor should they be recognized and rewarded as though they are. This is a key problem with self identification in Smith's case.
But her scholarship is so remarkably insightful, required reading really. Shouldn't that entitle her to the claim of Cherokee identity. No. Think of James Mooney. He did strong scholarly work, but never entitled himself as a Cherokee. To this day, she writes "I have always been, and will always be Cherokee. I have consistently identified myself based on what I knew to be true." Not, "I believe I am descended from Cherokees." Or "I believe this to be true because..." This is a matter of accuracy and integrity both in self representation. No matter who the scholar, evidence of any claim is central to establishing ethos and maintaining the integrity of the work. A claim without evidence is misleading, unconvincing, and compromising of the quality of the work, that otherwise might be very helpful to the people she claims to represent.
Who gets to ask about an identity claim? When is it appropriate? When is the asking an 'attack'? One scholar asking another to provide evidence of a claim made in professional materials has the right to ask by dint of pursuing academic honesty and integrity. American Indian nations certainly and undeniably can ask scholars for their affiliations and can expose scholars who are not enrolled to relevant parties. Search committees and tenure review committees at public universities do not get to ask for certification of tribal affiliation because federal law allows for self identification. These committees do however have every right and obligation to seek alignment of claim and evidence in the body of a scholar's work to ensure the highest levels of scholarly and research integrity of scholarship.
There is no attack in the asking when the asking is a matter of sovereignty or professional integrity. There is no scrutiny when the question is begged by circumstances of the day. Dozelal's case is exactly what the doctor ordered, and what for many many years scholars in American Indian studies and the Cherokee Nation have known about Smith, but were in no position to openly, publicly, and frankly talk about. There is no policing when there's dialogue, and social media has opened up the dialogue, for better or worse.
The bottom line: the burden of proof for an identity claim is on all scholars, professionals, and American Indian peoples. Proof needs to be provided the claims made in professional materials, especially when these materials work to bolster a scholar ethos and position. For the time being at least.
In future posts, I'll take up your questions beginning with: But white people don't need to prove their identity in scholarly articles, why should American Indians?
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